The long and storied history of Orange County’s theater community is littered with various collectives that have drifted into obscurity due to insufficient focus, funding, organization and leadership and an inability to keep participating individuals and theater companies on the same page.
Enter the OC Theatre Guild.
You’re probably thinking that the Guild came into being in response to the pandemic. Not true. And it would be reasonable to assume the dismal track records of previous similar cooperatives are reliable indicators as to OCTG’s ability to survive – but its success since it was launched two years ago suggests this one has little in common with past failed entities. It also suggests that the Guild is likely to become a fixture of the theater scene rather than a passing phenomenon.
OCTG’s founders and those who now run it feel in some way that such a cooperative effort among Orange County’s theater companies isn’t just necessary but vital. That the pandemic has had such a devastating effect on all local live theater has only underscored the urgent need for an OCTG to come into existence.
It took a handful of years for the Guild to get a running start. Sharyn Case said that she and Brian Page, who forged careers as directors at several smaller Orange County theater companies throughout the 1980s, ‘90s, ‘00s and teens, recognized “the need for a more united theater community.”
The duo organized and created what they called the OC Theatre Guild in the late summer of 2015, envisioning it as a platform for theater leaders to discuss the business challenges facing them as well as a way through which to share ideas and season information.
A Firsthand View of Its Genesis
The Guild’s roots actually go back a few decades.
In the late 1990s, managing director of Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, Wade Williamson, who is now on the Guild’s board council, had a firsthand view of its genesis. He recalls that Page and Case came to those running Vanguard “with an idea of forming an Orange County theater guild. At the time I thought it was a great idea. I appreciated their enthusiasm and I liked the ideas they had about what the Guild could do.”
Those at VTE had several meetings with Case and Page “about getting all the local theaters involved, what resources might be available that could be shared to save on production costs, holding general auditions with all of the local theater companies at once, and so forth,” Williamson said. “However, the Guild was never really able to come together back then. For my part, as managing director at VTE, it was a question of available resources at the time – both human and otherwise. It takes a lot of time, energy, people and money to keep a small theater company going, and it is almost always all volunteer.”
Williamson said that even despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Page persevered. “Years later, he was able to meet with the ‘right’ group of leaders from the local theater companies, and the idea started gaining traction. I don’t know exactly who he reached out to or how many meetings they had, but one day, I was working at my new home at Chance Theater and I saw Brian (Page) walk through with Oanh Nguyen (Chance’s artistic director) and Brian Newell (Maverick Theater) and I think maybe even Jeff Lowe (Alchemy Theatre Company). Later, I asked Oanh what was going on and he said that they were trying to form the guild again – and, again, I thought it was a great idea, and I volunteered to help.
“Thanks to Brian and Sharyn’s tenacity, and the experienced theater leadership of the newly formed board, the idea of an Orange County Theater Guild became a reality. The Guild was able to put in place many of those original ‘lofty’ ideals and has already provided great benefit to the theater companies and the actors and the audiences and the lovers of live theater here in Orange County.”
In the first week of 2019, the Guild held its first meeting, with a founding board council comprised of Amanda DeMaio (STAGEStheatre) as president, Kristin Campbell (The Wayward Artist) as vice-president, Tamiko Washington (Chapman University theater professor) as treasurer and Nguyen as secretary, joined by Lowe, Newell, Page and Williamson. The decision was made to emphasize service to the community and the mission statement “nurturing, supporting and promoting live theater in greater Orange County” was adopted.
That means OCTG had just over a year of operation before the pandemic struck and forced a shutdown of all theaters.
A New Cooperative Finds Its Legs
The board looked outside of Orange County at organizations like the LA STAGE Alliance (Los Angeles), Theatre Bay Area (San Francisco) and Theatre Communications Group (New York City/national) as a guide for putting their ideas into action. Nguyen said that just prior to its first official meeting, the first agreed-upon goal was to form a formal not-for-profit and in April 2019, OCTG was incorporated as a 501(c)3, a status which allows it to conduct fundraising activities.
June 2019 saw the first meeting of the full membership – eight “organizational members” (theater companies) and upwards of 30 individuals.
The Attic Community Theatre, Camino Real Playhouse, Chance Theater, Costa Mesa Playhouse, Maverick Theater, Project La Femme, STAGEStheatre and The Wayward Artist were among the earliest companies to join. (To be eligible to join, a theater company must exist to produce professionally oriented, scripted productions for the public, a definition that excludes improv companies, youth organizations, educational institutions and corporate or industrial businesses.)
Also in June were the first regional auditions wherein multiple theaters would jointly audition sizable numbers of actors to consider for roles in any of their upcoming productions. “We’d easily see more than 100 people at a time,” DeMaio said.
Nguyen said the regional auditions were an efficient method of pooling resources. “They allowed our member producers to see more talent in a day than they would normally get to see at their own auditions,” he said. And actors now have a way to audition once for multiple theaters and productions.
By early 2020, the Guild had received its first corporate donations, launched an official website and a Facebook page, and implemented plans for an annual awards program that, were it not for the pandemic, would have included a live ceremony.
Katie Chidester (Project LaFemme), recently promoted from a board-elect member to board council, said, “We’ve tried to really lean into the ‘service’ mission of the Guild: How can we support O.C. artists? How can we raise the awareness of the theater organizations in our community? How can we fill a gap of education for those looking to use the sheltering of the pandemic time to reflect and evaluate the role of the arts?”
The Guild’s Response to a Devastating Virus
Board vice president Campbell said goals and areas of emphasis abruptly shifted once lockdowns began to occur. “Before the pandemic, we were focused on regional auditions, our inaugural awards programming and promoting performances,” she said. The pandemic forced them to re-focus, shifting their work to a theater artist relief fund, live-streamed roundtables, and developing an EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) committee.
Establishing the emergency relief fund became an immediate and urgent priority. DeMaio said that as soon as theaters were required to close their doors, “we quickly realized a lot of our peers were suddenly without any income at all and saw the need for emergency financial aid for artists who had lost money from contracts that abruptly ended.” By April, OCTG had a relief aid program in place which eventually raised $4,000 which supported nine individuals.
DeMaio reports that the onset of the pandemic precluded holding a live awards event, what would have been the Guild’s first – so the board quickly moved to put the program on hold. It shared its 2020 results through an online town hall in December 2020. It has since voted to suspend the awards program with an eye toward having an in-person event some time in 2022 that will combine 2020 and 2021’s abbreviated theater seasons.
Also early in the pandemic, OCTG created and organized an ongoing series of roundtables as a way of discussing essential questions facing the theater community during the pandemic. The live-streamed events are free of charge to attend. The first of these, held in May, 2020, included input not just from smaller theaters that are Guild members, but also from larger regional entities like South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Center for the Arts and Laguna Playhouse.
Early roundtables focused generally on managing the challenges of COVID-19, while later ones have become more specific – for instance, how to adapt education and outreach efforts.
Chidester, who has moderated nearly all of the roundtables, said they “allow the Guild to stay engaged with folks, encouraging viewers to ask questions and give feedback in real time, though you can watch all of them asynchronously.”
Simply navigating all of the ins and outs of dealing with COVID has been a continuing issue, and OCTG’s members have reported their difficulties in finding resources and information to the board. In response, a COVID relief page has been created and added to OCTG’s website that’s continuously being updated as the CDC sends out new guidelines.
A Different 2020 Crisis Triggers Awareness, Recognition and Action
While the coronavirus has caused officials to implement lifestyle-changing lockdowns, another crisis erupted within American society that has had wide-ranging impact: the death of George Floyd and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
DeMaio said that issues of equality, diversity and inclusion have long been of concern to the theater community, but the events of last summer brought them to the fore.
“It was always a long-term goal of ours to establish a guideline of standards for our community, things that would help give individuals a sense of understanding of what they could expect from organizations,” DeMaio said. By last spring and summer, while working on the issue of community standards, “we began to realize we needed to do work on our commitment” to having more diversity on stage and behind the scenes. The focus, she said, was on “what we could do to educate and provide resources to invite anyone into our community who had been marginalized.”
DeMaio said organization and individual members expressed awareness of such issues but felt lacking in how to approach and implement guidelines. Black, indigenous and people of color – what’s now referred to as “BIPOC” – are chief among demographic groups commonly marginalized by the Orange County theater scene, which, DeMaio said, “doesn’t have great representations from these groups. We had to recognize this fact and ask ourselves, ‘Why is that the case?’”
OCTG first responded in late summer and early fall of last year by providing assessment tools that help identify and shed light on areas where people are being marginalized and those around them “don’t even realize that’s the case.”
Chance’s Nguyen, one of the first local theater leaders to take up OCTG’s cause, said he was already involved with issues of diversity and inclusion in the L.A. alternative theater community by virtue of being “BIPOC myself” (he’s a native of Vietnam). “When George Floyd died, we all agreed that we need to really talk about this and make our local theater speak for all BIPOC artists.”
“These are hard conversations,” he said. “They’re difficult to have, but it’s important that we look inward and around and ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to make it safer?’ There are solutions and conversations we can have to help us understand each other better. But there are no easy answers, and I definitely have no solutions.”
Nguyen said that whatever OCTG is able to develop, in terms of practical tools, resources and guidelines, will be accessible at its website, including “assessing standards as far as local community, what BIPOC artists should be able to expect in our theater community, how theaters can make it a more safe space, and (suggestions as to) how we lift up more BIPOC artists in our community.” Chidester said that all of these issues are “things we think our theater community is going to be addressing when they again begin producing full-time.”
The Guild plans to create and publicize standards in written form before theaters begin to reopen to the public.
Technology Helps Bridge the Gap
DeMaio said that the December 2020 town hall revealed that many Guild members, whether individual or organizational, needed help with the technology needed to translate the live performance experience into a virtual space. OCTG is working with its members to help them create online content (like streaming events) to help them to keep in touch with their audiences and each other.
“We have a lot of educators who know how to produce an online show, so we’re working on providing that to our members and help get it into their hands, whether programs that are free or in producing videos for YouTube – creating content that’s all online,” said DeMaio.
By the same token, the Guild is working to help performers create an “introduction” video for themselves, so that various theaters know how to contact them and simply “to get actors onto their radar.” OCTG’s goal is to provide “how-to” information of this type not just for performers, but also for offstage talent such as designers and others who work behind the scenes.
The Future, Post-COVID
DeMaio said that recent board meetings have begun to touch on long-range goals, some of which might come into existence rapidly and others that might take more time in coming.
“We’ve always been interested in increasing our volunteer base, so we want to create a volunteer outreach program.” She said this will naturally include BIPOC outreach but will also include other groups that tend to become marginalized by society, like seniors and the hearing/vision-impaired. The goal, she said, is to provide resources once theaters are once again able to do live performances.
With an eye toward a time when theater patrons can see shows at their favorite theater, OCTG has just produced a “We’ll Be Back” video.
“The community is still there,” DeMaio said, “and people are still working really hard behind the scenes to reopen when it’s time to do so.” As to the video’s content, OCTG “got a lot of input from a wide variety of organizations and individual members.”
As DeMaio said of the video, “We just want to give people the sense that it won’t always be this way.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.